Leave town centres alone - picture by Doc Searles

As we all know there’s a lot of handwringing over our High Streets. They’re being hollowed out by ever rising rents, excessive business rates and competition from online retailers. So, what is it that we should do about this?

One good start would be to understand what people have told us before on the subject:

Despite the doom and gloom, predictions of the death of the high street are misplaced – at least to the extent that they envisage town centres as essentially existing for shopping only. Transforming the fortunes of our high streets, and the prospects of people living or working in them, is eminently possible. But to do so, we need to reimagine town centres as places where, as the urbanist Jane Jacobs put it, the theatre of life can thrive.

OK, great, Jane Jacobs, yes indeedy.

Its transformation did not happen by accident, but as a result of concerted action by local leaders. The massive destruction wreaked by the 1996 IRA bomb accelerated these efforts. A masterplan was put in place, focusing on boosting leisure and cultural facilities such as the Royal Exchange theatre and the Corn Exchange building. The Metrolink, first introduced in 1992, was extended. Birmingham, Leeds and Bristol have been similarly reimagined; in each, retail is a thriving part of the high street, but as a byproduct of its wider success.

Ah, no. Jane Jacobs argued exactly the opposite. Leave the planning alone, allow people to do as they wish, and urban centres will thrive. Sure, you’ve got to police the scum, collect the rubbish and so on. But other than that pretty much don’t have planning laws about who may do what where. Just let them get on with it. Her insight being that people will experiment and do more of those things which succeed. A thriving town centre isn’t “for” anything, it’s just more people doing more of what people want to do in that place.

So, here we’ve the insistence that in order to revive a town in the manner of Jane Jacobs we must go and do exactly the opposite of what Jane Jacobs said we should.

Well done there, vry well done indeed.

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  1. There will always be a reason for a town center, a place which, through its centrality, is designed to be equally accessible to all. The reason is not the traditional ones; around here, the ballpark, the multi-screen cinema, the grocery, and Walmart are outside of town, off the expressway, with acres of free parking. Ten years from now, the latter two might not even be there, as both companies have a vision of customers ordering electronically for home delivery. We can already obviate the cinema and can watch first-run movies without the sound of chewing and of unruly children.

    Persons who win a popularity contest, and persons choosing careers in the planning bureaucracy, have no particular way of seeing the future. If someone invents a new use for the town center, let him move forward, without vetoes from “stakeholders” — at his own risk.

    And agree, the explosion of a bomb did not sour people on going downtown ever again, nor spur one particular vision of the future use of a town center.

  2. One of the risks of letting people do as they please is that some may be successful and make quite a bit of money thus contributing to inequality. You can be reasonably assured that that risk is lessened with the planners in charge.

  3. As long as the council tries to punish me for going to their town I will go elsewhere. Or stay home. And by all means let the unsuccessful high streets go to the wall, no skin off my nose.

  4. I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what you mean by ” hollowed out by ever rising rents”. If rents are rising, presumably there are renters willing to pay higher rents. That may well mean you get a Costa Coffee & a Tesco Express rather than Pam’s Tearoom & Sid the Butcher but doesn’t that mean that Costa & Tesco are what the paying punter prefers & will make profitable enough to pay the higher rents? Indeed, isn’t this exactly the-free-for all experimentation you’re in favour of?

      • Well, yes and no. That is the first meaning, yes.

        the second is that British commercial property leases usually (ie, near universally) have “upwards only” rent review clauses. So, rents rise in the good times over the course of a lease but never fall in the bad times. This is what is driving the rash of CVAs in retail at present. Only that sort of move will bring the landlords to the table to discuss rents.

      • Remarkable! Who would design a lease to break rather than bend if the economy turned down or if the general price level began to fall? An urban planner trying to guarantee prosperity by the documents he can draft?

  5. When I was kinda involved in retail the situation was as Tim says. Rents must never go down even if the property remains unlet because of the book value being based on the rentables whether it is let or not.

    You could also not get a short term to try the location out. Ten years with a break at five. One landlord let the second five begin without telling us what the new rent was going to be. They didn’t respond to queries, we had to stop paying to get them to talk to us. Which they did via legal procedures at which the judgey person told them they had acted badly and we had to pay the back rent (of course, it was sitting in the bank) but not their costs. We did not renew.

    • It’s been 20 years since my better half switched careers from commercial property solicitor, but your description matches hers. I’ve not heard that anything much has changed in the intervening period.

  6. Fascinating. So it’s not so much planning ruining the high street as unplanned stupidity.
    But it’s been obvious most people lost the plot years ago. The sole purpose of towns is that high street of shops ( & of course the other associated retailers & businesses). The reason towns exist is as places to meet & trade. Otherwise they’re purposeless dormitories.